Monday, May 17, 2010

Enfant Terrible

“A SOILED BABY, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty,” said Mark Twain. Beloved as they are, babies are not always adorable or even interesting — they are notoriously poor conversationalists, they don’t smoke, and they seldom give useful stock tips.

Nonetheless, French producer Alain Chabat thought it would be a wonderful idea to make a documentary capturing the first year of life of four babies in different parts of the world, with music, no commentary and minimal dialogue — a sort of wildlife movie about human infancy. “I felt it could be an emotional experience,” Chabat says. “I dreamt of a movie theater audience that would applaud because a baby would stand on their own two feet.” Chabat enlisted Thomas Balmès to direct the movie, which, like its subjects, is alternately endearing, surprising, lovely and maddening. Its most interesting element, the ethnographic comparisons of child-raising practices and culture in Africa, Japan, Mongolia and the U.S., is left largely unexplored, leaving the audience, like an underfed baby, hungry for more.

Digitally shot over a period of two years, followed by another two years of editing, the movie follows four families from the woman’s late pregnancy through their babies’ first year (three of the babies are girls because the “casting” was unpredictable.) The audience is introduced to Ponijaio of Namibia, Africa, Bayar of Mongolia, Hattie of San Francisco, and Mari of Tokyo. Although the babies are doing the things universal to child development — being groomed, crawling, fussing, laughing, harassing surprisingly tolerant pets and being harassed by older siblings, they are doing these things in vastly different settings, and therein lies the movie’s sole interest.

Babies’ beautiful cinematography caresses the plains of Namibia, where little Ponijaio’s mother and eldest daughter, in loincloths and elaborately braided hair, are members of the Himba tribe. The men are off camera somewhere, raising cattle, while the women look after the children in a loving and refreshingly laissez-faire way. The film shows rituals like the shaving of the baby’s head with a sharp knife and washing him with a mixture of red earth pigment and oil that are not explained. Indeed, at times during this mostly word-free movie, you long for the BBC-style announcer to intone, “To clean the dust out of the babies’ eyes, without traveling by donkey or walking for hours to fetch water, the Himba mother uses her own saliva.” It would also be interesting to read subtitles for their lively-sounding native language.

Although Chabot claims the film makes no judgments about any of the families, there are certain implications in the editing. Following the very natural childbirths of Asian and African babies, we meet the American baby in a hospital setting, where newborn Hattie was being monitored for a breathing problem. The parents are almost comically “New Age,” with their parenting books, hot tub and Native American chanting circle. The film emphasizes the noisy chaos of Tokyo, underscoring the point by showing Mari crying amid a group of other daycare babies, a book titled “Where Is My Mommy?” under on the floor nearby. But all the babies are equally cute, sweet, mischievous and loved.

The idea is a lovely one, but unenhanced footage of babies cannot be considered a theatrical event. Even over its short 79-minute running time, the movie becomes as tiresome as your neighbor’s home movies. Midway through, audiences not besotted with the babyness of it all will relate to little Mari, who grows bored with her toys and pitches a solitary fit, lying on her back and kicking her tiny legs in utter frustration.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene,

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